Once upon a time, I was an interdisciplinary social science undergrad. What does that mean? It means I spent 3 years studying political science, political philosophy, and history, then dropped out to become a stand up comic. Political scientists are a strange breed. In large part, they study voter behavior in all its aspects. What different types of voters are there? Obviously there is a range, from the highly committed partisan to the typical undecided voter. What motivates them, where they get the information that shapes their eventual choice of who to vote for, how coherent are their policy preferences – these are the types of questions that political scientists attempt to answer using the tools of their trade. Louis Menand has a fascinating article in the New Yorker about what decades of such study has shown us.
How do voters decide who to vote for? Ideally, each person knows the policy positions taken by rival candidates, understands the issues involved, evaluates whose positions are more likely to have positive results and votes accordingly. Then again, let’s talk about the real world:
When pollsters ask people for their opinion about an issue, people generally feel obliged to have one. Their answer is duly recorded, and it becomes a datum in a report on “public opinion.” But, after analyzing the results of surveys conducted over time, in which people tended to give different and randomly inconsistent answers to the same questions, Converse concluded that “very substantial portions of the public” hold opinions that are essentially meaningless–off-the-top-of-the-head responses to questions they have never thought about, derived from no underlying set of principles. These people might as well base their political choices on the weather. And, in fact, many of them do.
Findings about the influence of the weather on voter behavior are among the many surveys and studies that confirm Converse’s sense of the inattention of the American electorate. In election years from 1952 to 2000, when people were asked whether they cared who won the Presidential election, between twenty-two and forty-four per cent answered “don’t care” or “don’t know.” In 2000, eighteen per cent said that they decided which Presidential candidate to vote for only in the last two weeks of the campaign; five per cent, enough to swing most elections, decided the day they voted.
Thus, public opinion is highly fluid and prone to swings based on things other than an informed evaluation of the issues. Why is this? Primarily because most people just don’t know much about the issues, and their lack of understanding is so ingrained that they can’t give consistent answers to questions with just a slight change in wording:
Seventy per cent of Americans cannot name their senators or their congressman. Forty-nine per cent believe that the President has the power to suspend the Constitution. Only about thirty per cent name an issue when they explain why they voted the way they did, and only a fifth hold consistent opinions on issues over time. Rephrasing poll questions reveals that many people don’t understand the issues that they have just offered an opinion on. According to polls conducted in 1987 and 1989, for example, between twenty and twenty-five per cent of the public thinks that too little is being spent on welfare, and between sixty-three and sixty-five per cent feels that too little is being spent on assistance to the poor…
The most widely known fact about George H. W. Bush in the 1992 election was that he hated broccoli. Eighty-six per cent of likely voters in that election knew that the Bushes’ dog’s name was Millie; only fifteen per cent knew that Bush and Clinton both favored the death penalty. It’s not that people know nothing. It’s just that politics is not what they know.
So what do political scientists generally conclude about the dominant factors that determine elections? Menand discusses the possible conclusions:
In the face of this evidence, three theories have arisen. The first is that electoral outcomes, as far as “the will of the people” is concerned, are essentially arbitrary. The fraction of the electorate that responds to substantive political arguments is hugely outweighed by the fraction that responds to slogans, misinformation, “fire alarms” (sensational news), “October surprises” (last-minute sensational news), random personal associations, and “gotchas.” Even when people think that they are thinking in political terms, even when they believe that they are analyzing candidates on the basis of their positions on issues, they are usually operating behind a veil of political ignorance. They simply don’t understand, as a practical matter, what it means to be “fiscally conservative,” or to have “faith in the private sector,” or to pursue an “interventionist foreign policy.” They can’t hook up positions with policies. From the point of view of democratic theory, American political history is just a random walk through a series of electoral options. Some years, things turn up red; some years, they turn up blue.
None of us really wants to believe that the outcomes of elections are entirely random. I would suggest that this is not true. Even if the core reasons why an election went one way rather than another are not due to germane issues like policy evaluation, they still happen for SOME reason. And if the portion of the populace that swings an election one way or the other is this ignorant – and I have no doubt that they are – then they are also easily manipulated. This is why campaign consultants get paid enormous amounts of money to tell a candidate not only what to say to each demographic group, but what color their tie should be to present an image of strength, and which emotional buttons to push in Cleveland, Ohio as opposed to Ottumwa, Iowa. Armed with knowledge gleaned from thousands of studies of human response to various stimuli, studies that form the basis of the entire advertising industry, the consultants orchestrate the whole campaign for maximum ability to appeal to the voters. Which leads to the second explanation:
A second theory is that although people may not be working with a full deck of information and beliefs, their preferences are dictated by something, and that something is élite opinion. Political campaigns, on this theory, are essentially struggles among the élite, the fraction of a fraction of voters who have the knowledge and the ideological chops to understand the substantive differences between the candidates and to argue their policy implications. These voters communicate their preferences to the rest of the electorate by various cues, low-content phrases and images (warm colors, for instance) to which voters can relate, and these cues determine the outcome of the race. Democracies are really oligarchies with a populist face.
It’s difficult to argue with that conclusion. But it leads to all sorts of unusual contradictory opinions on the part of the public who are taking their cues from the economic and political elite. Take, for example, views on repealing the estate tax:
When people are asked whether they favor Bush’s policy of repealing the estate tax, two-thirds say yes–even though the estate tax affects only the wealthiest one or two per cent of the population. Ninety-eight per cent of Americans do not leave estates large enough for the tax to kick in. But people have some notion–Bartels refers to it as “unenlightened self-interest”–that they will be better off if the tax is repealed. What is most remarkable about this opinion is that it is unconstrained by other beliefs. Repeal is supported by sixty-six per cent of people who believe that the income gap between the richest and the poorest Americans has increased in recent decades, and that this is a bad thing. And it’s supported by sixty-eight per cent of people who say that the rich pay too little in taxes.
Such cognitive dissonance is a troubling thing, but not for those who hold it. They go along blissfully unaware of the inconsistency in their thinking because they simply don’t recognize the connection between the two issues. Like the Queen in Wonderland responding to Alice, they are quite happy and content to believe six impossible things before breakfast. But if most people are not ideologically motivated at all, then why does the political discourse seem so much more vitriolic and polarized now? One possible answer:
But Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford, thinks that it is not so, and that the polarized electorate is a product of élite opinion. “The simple truth is that there is no culture war in the United States–no battle for the soul of America rages, at least none that most Americans are aware of,” he says in his short book “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America” (Longman; $14.95). Public-opinion polls, he argues, show that on most hot-button issues voters in so-called red states do not differ significantly from voters in so-called blue states. Most people identify themselves as moderates, and their responses to survey questions seem to substantiate this self-description. What has become polarized, Fiorina argues, is the élite. The chatter–among political activists, commentators, lobbyists, movie stars, and so on–has become highly ideological. It’s a non-stop “Crossfire,” and this means that the candidates themselves come wrapped in more extreme ideological coloring.
But this leaves me stumped on one question. Are the elites really divided? And if so, what about? It seems to me that they all have essentially the same economic interests. It’s obviously true that no matter which party occupies power, the government continues to expand and take up more of the available space, despite the pretensions of one side as favoring “smaller government”. Is it, rather, a false division, a diversion to make it appear that there are really two sides in opposition when in truth the two parties are both essentially subsidiaries of big business?
Postscript: Will Wilkinson is blogging about the same article. See it here.